Maybe climate change needs a great pop song
As leaders from around the world gather at the United Nations this week for a global summit on climate change, the outlook is gloomy. The U.S, historically the world's worst polluter, can't even decide if man-made climate change exists. Meanwhile, China, the current king of greenhouse gas emissions, is reluctant to sign on to any climate change pact that would hinder its growth.
All of which got me thinking about Sting.
The 1980s were pretty dark days in geopolitics, but also the apex of do-good populism in the music industry. Before the rebirth of the music festival in the 1990s, A-list rock and pop musicians collaborated on topics ranging from helping family farms in the Midwest to helping starving children in drought-plagued East Africa.
Pop artists tackled some of the big socio-political issues of the day — nothing new in rock 'n' roll — and some of those songs shaped the way a generation of young Americans viewed the world. Notably, pop music took on the Cold War. Songs like Elton John's "Nikita" (1985), Nena's "99 Luftballons" ("99 Red Balloons," 1983), and Billy Joel's just-under-the-wire "Leningrad" (1989) humanized the West's Cold War nemesis, pointing out the folly of mutually assured destruction. The most direct of these melodic appeals was probably Sting's "Russians," from 1985:
You can judge for yourself how well these songs have aged. But for a kid trying to figure out America's proxy war with the Soviet Union — or, as Ronald Reagan called it, the "Evil Empire" — it was illuminating to hear that behind the "rhetorical speeches of the Soviets," they probably loved their children as much as Americans and Britons did. "Russians" also had helpful historical references to Nikita Khrushchev's threats and Manhattan Project technical chief J. Robert Oppenheimer's "deadly toy."
The power of the songs wasn't just in the words, though. They were catchy. The brooding "Russians" hit only No. 16 on the U.S. Billboard Top 100 chart, but "Nikita" reached No. 7 and "99 Red Balloons" crested at No. 2. And both the latter songs hit No. 1 on several European charts.
Nuclear annihilation is still probably the greatest threat to humanity, but climate change isn't that far behind — according to the overwhelming scientific, if not political, consensus. Climate change could sure use an earworm of its own about now.
China and the U.S are making noises this week about reducing their use of fossil fuels. But President Obama can only do so much via executive order, and the next president — say, a Rand Paul from coal-country Kentucky — could undo it in a few months. Congress needs to act. China's Communist Party has to act. People need to care.
Giant marches are great, but they only last for a few hours and rely on the news media for coverage. If a song's a hit, you can't get rid of it. You can't argue with it. And if the melody gets stuck in your head, the words will eventually catch up and sink in.
The right song might help create a generation committed to fighting for and thinking up smarter ways of generating electricity and responsibly managing the Earth's resources. Or at least a generation that overwhelmingly believes human-influenced climate change is a real thing and a real threat. The politics are tricky, but not much more fraught than Soviet relations in the time of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The right song for climate change shouldn't be preachy, and it has to have the right messenger. You may think lute-playing, soft-rocking Sting was a poor choice for Cold War truth-telling, but "Russians" is from Sting's first post-Police album, and The Police's last album, Synchronicity (1983), is one of the great rock albums of the 20th century. In 1985, Sting had street cred, and not much political baggage.
Climate change needs a musician along those lines, someone popular and talented at writing maddeningly catchy hooks and not known for his or her political activism. If the song is good enough, one of China's top pop artists may cover it. Music is soft power. This idea may be quixotic, but if China and the U.S. and the rest of the developed world are grooving along to the same song, the right song, it may actually make a difference in how the world deals with our shared existential problems.
That is, if the Chinese love their children, too.